When was the last time you changed your mind? I don’t remember. Well, I changed my mind when I decided that I liked sour craft beers, but that’s not what I mean. When was the last time that you realised that a political belief you held was wrong and changed your mind?
Not recently, right? This might go some way to explaining why we are such a divided nation. Divided between the left and the right, or the town and the city, or the educated and not so educated, or the people who aspire to sleeve tattoos and those who try to avoid them. These are deeply held tribal identities and they inform how we see the world.
This is why people don’t change their minds. Even within the broad churches of the mainstream left and right political parties, opinions to do not change much from that ascribed to narrow factions. Corbyn is either a saint or a curse, nothing in between, and your view is fixed.
Then again, most people don’t spend their free time earnestly refreshing their podcast feeds to see if the latest issue of Novara FM is out whilst reading Sarah Ditum’s latest piece on gender politics in the New Statesman. Most people don’t wait in silence at parties until the point when last week’s Question Time can be brought up.
Most people have other interests. Most people don’t really care about politics (or at least the cut and thrust of politics as sport that fills newspapers and Twitter feeds). Most people don’t have fixed opinions outside of the run up to an election. Most people can be persuaded, because they don’t mainline ideology 24/7.
If most people can be persuaded, but the right is in the ascendancy globally, then it follows that the left are really bad at persuading people. Our arguments have merit. One of the things I have been surprised by over the last year or so is that criticism of globalisation and neoliberalism have been taken on by the right. These criticisms look strangely similar to arguments made by the left over the last 20 years. The difference between Russel Brand and Donald Trump is different varieties of bad haircuts.
None of this has been of benefit to the left. People agree with our criticisms of the status quo, but not with our proposed solutions. This could be because of our reliance on facts and statistics. Strangely enough people don't believe facts. You could easily characterise the average voter as a scion of Homer Simpson, who once claimed: “Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true.”
You could do that and you’d be wrong. This is because there is no objective truths in politics. Data shows that immigration is good for our overall economy, but who benefits from this? Do you personally? Can you prove it’s everyone? To a five sigma level of accuracy? You can't, because you can't be scientific about politics the same way you can about particle physics. The most deluded people in politics are those who believe in Rationalia. And people who still trust the Lib Dems.
People’s opinions are driven by emotions. This is true of benefits, immigration, Brexit, almost anything. Most people feel that they are Remain or Leave and then gather facts that support this. If you think this isn’t true then can you remember the moment when you consciously weighed up the evidence of the Leave and Remain cases and reached a decision?
These emotions are created by personal experiences. This means appealing to rational self-interest or statistics does not work. Appealing to people’s emotions will work. So does this mean that the left should be occupying the emotional state of things that people feel are true rather than fact based arguments?
I don’t want to abandon logical arguments for what “feels true”. There is an effective way to use facts and emotions to make a case. Black Lives Matter do this really well, as did the No To Page 3 campaign. There is an attack on the notion of facts and certainty, that is being exploited by the populist right who have just discovered postmodernism and think it makes them clever. I don’t want the left to be a part of this, but we need to recognise the subjective truth of politics.
I think we can learn from the right, but not that we should completely abandon facts. I see people on the left who want to give over time to acknowledging the objections that people have with our crazy ideas like not crippling our economy, letting in a few people from war torn countries, fairness, tolerance and not killing every living thing on the planet in a nuclear fireball. This strikes me as ridiculous.
The Leave campaign did not go out of its way to acknowledge legitimate concerns about leaving the EU. They did not start with “I know you are worried that leaving the EU is the same as hollowing out Ben Nevis and filling it with money and jobs and then concreting over the entrance, but we think that it will be okay”. Does Nigel Farage acknowledge the case for immigration? We are not going to convince anyone by starting with apologising for what we believe in.
There are things we can learn from the right about how to make are arguments better and bolder. Emotional arguments have a place too, but cannot entirely replace facts and data. We must acknowledge that everyone has a subjective understanding of politics. We can convince people of the merits of left wing arguments if we are less timid and apologetic for the things we believe in.